MOVIE: The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band) (2009)

This quiet, disturbing film is the latest by Austrian director Michael Haneke, a filmmaker who doesn’t always impress me with his stories or even his point of view, but who definitely never fails to leave a mark on my brain one way or another (Funny Games in particular, Caché to a lesser extent — and watch for reviews of The Piano Teacher and The Seventh  Continent coming soon).

Annnnd, yeah.  You see that sentence right up there?  I’ve had that sentence written for a week now and I can’t seem to move beyond it.  I have no idea what to say about this film.  I think this film is absolutely brilliant.  Is it?  Am I right about that?  I have no idea.  But it makes me feel like anything I say about it will be almost necessarily stupid by comparison.  Bear with me.

Here’s what I can manage:  The White Ribbon is about a small village in Germany, set just before the start of World War I.  A bunch of weird things are happening — people getting hurt, barns being burned, etc. — and nobody knows who to blame.  There’s a pack of kids in the village who all act strangely — unsettlingly nice, kind of — and we’re led to believe immediately that they are the ones carrying out these progressively horrific  crimes.  Ranging  from ages 6 to 12 or so in about 1917, they would also clearly, then, be the kids who grew up to be Nazi officers and prison guards and the otherwise-evil perpetrators of great cruelty during WWII.

We’re led to believe that their parents, who are an unsettling mix of evil and good, are the ones who put them directly on this path.   We can see how that would be the case quite clearly.  For one thing, the ones who misbehave are made to wear white ribbons in their hair or around their arms to “remind them” of the type of purity they are supposed to be aiming for — marked, like the Jews during WWII, and raised to be obsessed with the concept of white = clean.  The movie is shot in black and white and is sort of hyper-lit so that those whites are almost overpowering in their brightness, the blacks then mostly just shades of various gray.  The look of this film is marvelous.  And very powerful.

There is a shot of a husband crying over the body of his dead wife next to a blindingly bright window that I will never forget — all you see is his back shaking off to the side while this almost painful white blast of sun bores holes into your retinas.  There is the sound of a injured child howling that I will never forget — I almost had to get up and leave the theater at that point, in fact, because the howling was so awful and so real and it went on for an absolutely unbearable amount of time, an amount of time that felt so much longer than necessary (and, oh, Mr. Haneke, I KNOW you did that on purpose).  There is the look on the face of a young girl who glances up nervously with a wistful, fake “it’s all right” smile at her brother while her father is in the middle of abusing her — I will never forget that either.  And, my god, the speech the doctor gives the midwife — that’s when I finally started to cry.  Her face.  Those words.  Her face.

I spent the entire two hours of this film sitting with my knees pulled tightly into my chest.  It was that hard to watch — I needed that much of the rest of my body between me and it.   And yet, at the same time, it was also oddly beautiful.  The narrator, the town schoolteacher, falls in love for the first time while all this is going on, and it was a romance of such quiet charm and innocence.  Such a strange, intense counterbalance to the other stories we were seeing.  And the mothers — the mothers.  Them too.

Oh, you see?  This all sounds utterly inane.  I tried to warn you!   Look, this film is impossible to talk about; you’ll just have to go see it for yourselves and do your own thinking.  When you’re done, come back and think some more with me?  Maybe then we can figure out what to say.

And man, it is SO time to rent some trash now.  Trash coming soon, trash coming in great quantities (aided in no small part by an upcoming trip to Mom’s this week, hurrah!).  Trash, trash, trash, and laughs — I promise.

[Pre-queue it at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Drama
Cast:  Christian Friedel, Ernst Jacobi, Leonie Benesch, Ulrich Tukur

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One Response to “MOVIE: The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band) (2009)”

  1. Liz Says:

    “Trash, trash, trash, the boys are marching…!” Couldn’t help it – my dad used to go around singing “Tramp, tramp, tramp, etc.”

    I believe this movie just won a Golden Globe for “best foreign film!” Wow – impressive (especially because I had not heard of it until I saw the awards show)! I bet your reaction to it was spot on – but I may not get to see it, so I’m glad you reviewed it for “us.”

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